Short version: It’s good.
Longer, minimal-spoiler version:
In the opening episode of the 1990s X-Men cartoon, the young mutant Jubilee is astonished when the mysterious Gambit explodes a mutant-hunting Sentinel robot with a pack of cards. “How did you do that?” she asks. “With style, petit,” Gambit replies. “With style.”
That about sums up Matthew Vaughn’s prequel-reboot (preboot?) of the X-film franchise, X-Men: First Class, which opens Friday. Though it doesn’t reach the heights of the two Bryan Singer-directed X-films, it’s infinitely superior to the last few entries we shall not name, and the secret here is style — a fun, breezy, classic adventure style.
Vaughn, who directs and co-wrote the screenplay with three other credited screenwriters (including Kick-Ass collaborator Jane Goldman), two other “story by” credits and a host of uncredited contributors including Chuck co-creator Josh Schwartz, keeps the tone light but not silly, and the action fast but not furious in a film that, frankly, could have gone off the rails at any moment.
With more than a dozen major characters, a 1960s setting that weaves in real-life historical elements and the audience’s existing knowledge of both the previous X-films and comics weighing down on the production, it’s a miracle that X-Men: First Class even makes sense, let alone works as an entertaining piece of summer escapism. The trick is that the characters seem lively and the action stays focused on the story… though the film’s reach occasionally exceeds its grasp. More on that in a bit.
Loathsome as I find that particular portmanteau, the spine of X-Men: First Class is the tragic “bromance” between James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier and Michael Fassbender’s Erik Lehnsherr. The backstories of each are explored, and the most interesting idea is that Erik is perhaps a more natural leader than Charles, portrayed as a charming, witty young man who’s not above using his knowledge of genetics to try to impress chicks.Erik’s continuity is tied closely to the opening of Bryan Singer’s first X-Men film, with the original Michael Kamen score thrown in for good measure, and the potentially disastrous route of tying his backstory to Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw thankfully works. Fassbender gives Erik a wounded intensity, a lone wolf seeking vengeance who becomes the very thing he hates. A few more scenes could have sold the motives beyond his final transformation, but the character and performance is powerful enough to sell it.
Likewise, Kevin Bacon has a hell of a good time as Shaw, written and played as a classic James Bond villain, complete with cool suits and a cooler sub. The character’s powers need more explanation (there’s a throwaway line about how he stays young, and his evil plot is at least told visually instead of in a monologue), but Bacon’s having a good enough time that he comes off as an actual character, as opposed to, y’know, Kevin Bacon.
The rest of the cast at times gets short shrift; the only one with a fully-realized arc is recent Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence of Winter’s Bone and the forthcoming The Hunger Games as Raven/Mystique. Retroactively given a brother/sister childhood friendship with Charles Xavier (quick, get Chris Giarrusso on The Adventures of Li’l Raven n’ Charles, stat!), the character gets the most screen time of the nascent cast and embodies a number of questions of the problems faced by the young and genetically-gifted, though her potential catchphrase of “Mutant and Proud” isn’t likely to sell any t-shirts.
Others don’t fare so well. Nicholas Hoult as Hank McCoy has a potentially meaty subplot that feels rushed and compressed, and might have better been split into a couple of films (his makeup looks like a cross between a high school mascot and the Cookie Monster). January Jones has little to do as Emma Frost other than being dry and pretty, in a performance that isn’t much of a stretch from her Mad Men work. Jones spends considerable screen time in underwear, which is expected, though the bit where Rose Byrne’s accent-less Moira MacTaggert also strips down to infiltrate the Hellfire Club feels a mite gratuitous.
Still other characters never come to life. If I didn’t look at the credits, I couldn’t tell you the name of Oliver Platt’s character, or Sebastian Shaw’s henchman with the whirlwind powers. There are a few characters who only seem to be in the film to provide exposition or cannon fodder, and you’ll know ‘em when you see ‘em.The best parts of the film are the scenes where the young mutants are being recruited and demonstrate/train in the use of their powers. The sequences not only get back to the fundamental appeal of the X-Men concept (and Harry Potter, for that matter), by simply having young people from disparate backgrounds get to act like real teenagers under extraordinary circumstances. They bicker, they’re insecure, they bond, they push themselves out of their comfort zone. If there wasn’t so much going on outside Xavier’s school, it’d be interesting to see a film or TV series that like many X-books, focuses on what it’s like to be a student at this school.
By the end, there’s a considerable amount X-Men: First Class has to resolve and/or set in motion for the once and future franchise, and it doesn’t always add up. But the film works, in large part because it’s simply about the fun of getting the team together, stopping the bad guys, and the sacrifice that comes with coming of age. And isn’t that what a Marvel superhero story is all about?
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